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Decoding Samburu Jewellery

by Nicole Nanetoi, Assistant Lodge Manager, Saruni Samburu

We all marvel at the beauty of the Samburu people: festooned in necklaces, chains, floral headdresses and colourful bangles. But it’s not just beauty for beauty’s sake. It all has a meaning in their ancient culture. Samburu assistant manager, Nicole Nanetoi shares her knowledge with us in this Q&A below.
Q. How does jewellery and body decoration differ between the Samburu men & women?
A. Men are divided into 3 categories:
– Young boys aged 2-13 yrs: wear a plain green-coloured piece necklace around their neck.
– Warriors aged 14-30 yrs: wear colorful necklaces with a chain across their chin to indicate that they are single.
– Junior & senior elders 31 yrs. onwards: wear a few, less bright necklaces.

Left image by Dirk Rees Photography
A. Women are divided into 2 categories:
– Young, unmarried girls: wear plain, red-coloured, heavy necklaces;& aluminum rings.

– Married women: wear colourful, heavy necklaces with a simple necklace on top with white and red beads, and a pair of earrings with ancient beaded

Left image by Pedro Rueda, guest
Right image by Janine Krayer, Pangolin Safaris
Q. Where is the jewellery made, and who makes it?
A. In the local village, made by the local women.

Images by Maike Tornquist, guest
Q. Where do the beads come from?
A. We have a small cowrie shell called ‘sikirai’ that comes from the ocean, and some are glass beads.
Q. How do they get their colour?
A. They are dyed by the manufacturer.

Left image by Janine Krayer, Pangolin Safaris
Right image by Maike Tornquist, guest
Q. How do you buy them?
A. We buy them on a market day in our village at open air displays.
Q. Can tourists to Samburu buy authentic jewellery? From where?
A. Yes they can. From the village and from the shops at the camps where they are staying.

Left image by Marina Shalamova, guest
Right image by Janine Krayer, Pangolin Safaris
Q. Anything else relating to jewellery and body decoration?
A. Young girls also receive their packs of beads from the male who will marry her in the future.

Samburu Women & Jewellery
Q. What is the difference between what a young woman wears and what an older woman wears?
A. The colour of their beads. The young women wear plain red-beaded necklaces and the older women wears multi-colored necklaces.

Image by Maike Tornquist, guest
Q. Why do the women have such large holes in their ears?
A. For the earrings that they are given on their wedding day.
Q. Why do women wear so many necklaces?
A. For the beauty and also to make rhythmically moves when dancing to the traditional songs.

Left image by Maike Tornquist, guest
Q. Do they ever take the jewellery off?
A. No, not at all.
Q. Does the selection of colours mean anything – or is it a personal preference?
A. The Samburu are butterfly people and it has a meaning: green for the pastures, white for purity, red for our blood from cows, yellow means harmony and blue means water.

Image by Cheryl Smith, guest
Q. What is the meaning of the ladies’ headbands? Some have long centre-pieces, some have short ones?
A. It is part of the beauty in a woman, it symbolises the beauty in the brains. Long centre pieces are for first wives whom are sent to Mt. Ololokwe (the Samburu sacred mountain) to worship Enkai while the short centre-piece symbolizes the second or third wife.

Image by Abinya R Odour, guest
Q. When marrying, do the bride and groom wear different items than what they usually wear?
A. Yes, the bride puts on a cows’ hide painted with red ochre while the groom ties some cows skin on his wrist and arms.

Q. Why are the earrings sometimes attached to the necklaces?
A. This is to avoid them getting lost because it symbolises a very bad omen to the individual.

Samburu Men & Jewellery

  1. What is the difference between what a ‘moran’ wears and what an ‘elder’ wears?
  2. Morans (14-30yrs old) wear colorful necklaces with a chain across their chin to indicate that they are single. Junior & senior elders, until they die, wear a few less-bright necklaces without the chin chain.

Left image by Cheryl Smith, guest
Right image by Gerhard Swanepoel, Pangolin Safaris
Q. Do they ever take it all off?
A. No, never.
Q. Does the selection of colours mean anything – or is it simply personal preference?
A. Yes, they have a meaning: green, yellow, white, red = pasture, harmony, purity and the blood which is part of their meal respectively.

Image by Dirk Rees Photography

  1. What about the large bracelets a man wears? And what is the meaning of the crossed over beading across the body on the young men?
  2. They are given by girlfriends who have admired them while performing dances in the village. The beading across the body is considered an item of beauty to cover their naked chest.

Left image by Dirk Rees Photography
Right image by Janine Krayer, Pangolin Safaris

Q. What about the different types of headwear for boys and men?
A. The moran have nice extensions, beads and feathers arranged from the forehead to the nape while elders have a string of beads of four rows across their forehead.
Q. How does this change throughout their life stages?
A. When morans graduate to junior elders that is when they change their headwear.

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